When I first started writing I’d get an idea or I’d see a scene in my head, or hear a character, or a think of a turn of phrase that interested me. I’d put each one in a separate computer file, hording these bits and pieces like a kid with a memento box.
The more time I spent not writing and wishing I was, I discovered something. Ideas for stories were slow to come. Interesting characters didn’t pop up and speak to me. I could see fascinating things and my mind wouldn’t ask the questions ‘what comes next?’ or ‘what if that was turned this way?’
I feared my ability to come up with ideas for stories had deserted me. That I would be stuck with dozens of files of bits and pieces I couldn’t fashion into stories because I had no idea (pardon the pun) how to put them together.
This lead to writing paralysis, as ugly self-talk does. Why write if I couldn’t think of anything interesting or unique to write? I would slog through a few paragraphs of a potential story and come to a shuddering halt, staring at the page and hating every word on it.
If you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo with an interest in crossing the 50k ‘finish line’ by the end of the month you know that there’s little time for hand-wringing over a lack of ideas. You get desperate to fill in word count, whether or not you intend on using the NaNovel for a serious bid to get published later. Any crazy-ass half-baked idea is suddenly fodder for the NaNovel. When all else fails ninjas crash through the door and attack everyone. That’s sure to shake up a story and get the creative juices flowing.
NaNo helped break through that initial paralysis. But it was a few years later that I decided to get serious again about a writing career. You can’t have a career if you don’t write. You can’t write if you don’t have something to write about. So the memento box was opened and I started picking through the bits and pieces, trying to forge stories out of them.
I discovered something else once I started writing regularly. Ideas came from everywhere. I couldn’t walk down the sidewalk without seeing or thinking something that might have potential to power a story at some point.
That’s when I figured out something else.
I have to be writing to have the ideas. I have to get into the nitty gritty of fashioning ideas into a story before new possibilities occur to me. It’s hard to keep working on one story when ideas for three or four others whisper seductively to me. I’m focused on writing short stories, right now, practicing and honing my craft. Even so, there are ideas for four different novels that are begging to be written, I'm excited by the ideas, interested in writing them. The nice thing is they’ll always be there, saved in the memento box of my thumb drive, ready to be written when the time comes.
I also learned that a story isn’t just one idea, but an amalgam of many ideas. My current work in progress combines a love of history, the story of a beautiful old mansion about to be demolished, and the heartbreaking picture of the head and torso of an angel abandoned in a field in New Jersey, taken from the old Pennsylvania Station.
My relief is huge. As long as I keep writing I will always have ideas I can write about.